English Words in War-time

“If the caps fits…”. From hats to helmets in Autumn 1915.

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© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5156); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28446

‘If the Cap Fits You‘ appeared as the text of a poster issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. Like many advertisements both then and now, it played with a carefully calibrated set of meanings. On one level, the familiar idiom of ‘if the cap fits, wear it’ raises questions of identity and individual affirmation. On another, this idiom was targeted via a specific type of cap and the diction of direct address. As the image confirms, the metaphorical ‘cap’ is now to be seen in terms of the khaki service cap, while the obligation to ‘wear it’ is re-interpreted via the action of ‘joining- up’, and the identity politics of active service.

In terms of language, this can, in fact, raise other interesting issues. In 1914-15, the cap, as here, formed the prototypical image of the British soldier, functioning not only as an item of uniform but able to emblematise wider issues of national and ideological identity. Helmets, in contrast, operated in a similar way for the enemy.  While helmet in the sense ‘a defensive cover for the head’, which is either made with, or strengthened with, metal,  had long existed in English, usage from early in the war confirms a careful divide in this respect, As in the extract below (taken from the Scotsman in September 1914), helmet operates as a form of semantic shorthand or ethnonym (‘a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known’). In what becomes a pervasive pattern of writing the enemy, helmet connotes not merely an item of clothing, but the enemy per se.

German troops have apparently been interspersed with the Austrian soldiers in the entrenchments for the purpose of raising the moral of the latter. What this moral is worth is apparent from a report received from a correspondent on the frontier, stating that after the Russian attacks on the “bluecloaks” – namely, the Austrians – took to flight, while the “helmets” i.e., the Prussians, were prepared to die to the last man, and perished accordingly.

The German helmet, referring to the spiked leather and metal pickelhaube was to be a distinct, and distinctive, marker. In other words, To appropriate the  diction of the recruiting poster, in this light, If the cap fits, one is British. if the helmet fits, one is not.

This does not, of course, mean that helmets were not used at all by the British troops — but rather that, until the autumn of 1915, core meanings and contexts of use were somewhat different. A demand for helmets was, for example, common from the early weeks of war. “You ask me if I want anything’, states a letter in the archive (reprinted in the Scotsman in December 1914). As the writer elaborated, the answer was a definite ‘Yes’:

Yes. Wool helmets, scarves, mittens, jerseys, warm under-clothing, and sea-boot socks for my crew. The poor souls have no warm gear, and are freezing.

‘Readers of the Scotsman are invited to help in sending winter comforts to the drivers, mechanics, and their mates’ in the ‘Mechanical Transport Columns’ of the army,  an earlier directive likewise confirms. ‘Woollen Helmets, Body Belts, Mufflers … will gladly be received’, it added. As in the following example, the fact that specification of ‘knitted’ or ‘woollen’ was often omitted can further confirm the ways in which  helmet as signifier operated at this point:

Lumbago belts (bought or knit), thousands of these are wanted at once, also mufflers and helmets.

As this indicates, helmets in the diction of early WW1 — and in the context of British use — were typically knitted, made by hand, and formed a regular feature of the comforts to be sent to the front. Such meanigns, the archive notes, were absent from the O.E.D. as it then existed — but merited a definition on the lines of ‘a closefitting covering for the head, of knitted-wool: so called from shape’. In what remains a particularly telling instance of usage of this kind, the Evening News helpfully provided a helmet recipe in October 1914 (it is, of course, needless to add that those who endeavoured to make this turned automatically to the knitting needle rather than the smelter)

The Dreadnought Helmet. In response to a correspondent we repeat the helmet recipe, useful in cold weather to our sailors

Meaning in these and similar uses depended, in fact, on the elliptical use of another lexical innovation which had its origin in an earlier war. As the OED. explained in its Supplement of 1933, the balaclava helmet was:

 a woollen covering for the head and neck worn esp. by soldiers on active service; named after the Crimean village of Balaclava near Sebastopol, the site of a battle fought in the Crimean war, 25 October 1854.(O.E. Balalclava (1933).**

Helmet was therefore unambiguously polysemous in its use in war in 1914-15, Used without specifying adjective, but in relation to the Germans, it meant a helmet of leather and metal,  often equipped with a metal spike (though, given the utility of the latter as a target for Allied guns, this was removable from the summer of 1915). Conversely, used without specifying word in relation to the British troops, helmet often simply means a woollen or knitted covering for the head which might protect from the elements but not much else. An extract such as the following makes the divide plain, where – if helmet is unmarked — the spoils are war are presumably by no means knitted.

The Belgians … display the utmost dash and skill in this form of warfare, often going out several miles ahead of their own advanced troops, and seldom failing to return loaded with spoils in the shape of lancer caps, busbies, helmets, lances, rifles,, and other trophies (Scotsman, 28th October 1914).

Linguistically, however, things become, however, much more interesting in the autumn of 1915. As a recent entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography confirms, it was at this point that John Brodie,a businessman and inventor, developed the steel helmet for British use. Sniping on the  Western Front resulted in a high casualty rate, while woollen helmets — or caps —  offered little protection either from bullets or from shrapnel landing from above. French experiments with improved protective helmets from mid-1915 were already bringing results; the Germans too were experimenting with a new all-metal version (eventually introduced for regular use in 1916). In the Words in War-Time archive, autumn of 1915 hence brings a critical shift in the diction fo the war. As the Daily Express announced in November 1915,

Steel helmets for protection against shrapnel which have been submitted to the Army authorities to be tested by British soldiers. They are manufactured by Mssrs. Samuel Hess and Son, Ltd., a London firm. The corrugated helmet on the right is claimed to have a greater resisting power than the plain steel

As this indicates, a new set of locutions thereby come into play. Collocations such as steel helmet made the departure from wool explicit while trench helmet appeared as yet another lexical form which was overtly linked to trench warfare, and the demands it brought. The colloquial jelly-mould, in another irreverent piece of trench slang, is attested in the Words in War-Time archive from January 1916 (later attributions would include the ‘soup bowl’, ‘tin hat’, or ‘battle bowler’). As the extract below confirms (taken from the Daily Telegraph in December 1915), the helmet in its new WW1 guise could even protect from the elements, too:

The steel trench helmet has proved not merely an excellent protection again shrapnel and shell splinters, but a most effective headpiece in times of rain and snow

By late 1916, the steel helmet was therefore part of the essential equipment of every Allied soldier, while helmet even without modifier gradually came to suggest steel rather than wool in British use (see e.g. the following example: ‘some officers who have studied the effect of the helmets on the hospital returns believe that such an adaptation of the armour of medieval days would be of great value’). Balaclava helmet or balaclava conversely increase in prominence, presumably in the interest of reducing aspects of potential ambiguity when head coverings made of wool were concerned. Whether the cap fits or not, it was a well-fitting — and metal — helmet which would, in the end, hence prove most important.

**

Additional Notes.

The absence of balaclava from the OED as it then existed is a regular feature of comment in the Words in War-Time archive (the fact that the Supplement appropriated some of the archive’s evidence in creating the new entry in this respect is equally worthy of note).

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